As I said I would, I waited until I was on the airplane to open the letter from my grandfather, Dave Adams, to his sweetheart, Beatrix Rasco, my grandmother, which my aunt had given me. (That’s the picture from their 50th wedding anniversary announcement at left.) While the letter is 36 pages long, my grandfather’s handwriting was large, and he left ample white space, so it took me no time at all to read it. (There were also several pages missing!)
My grandfather opens the letter by explaining that it is a confession of sorts. He wrote:
“…[B]ecause I have absolute faith in your love, and believe that you will try to understand me, and most of all, because I’m going to clear the path to our marriage at Christmas–or block it–I’m going to write the whole thing. If I could see you–and boy how I wanted to–I could explain the whole matter with a fine chance of getting across, for in my mind there is no guilt….I want to resassure you before I start that no girl is implicated. I fooled you, didn’t I, honey? But as far as I’m concerned, it’s much worse.”
You can imagine that I was chomping at the bit to find out what he was going to confess! But there weren’t any major revelations. (That would have been too easy, right?) Instead I got little clues about how grandfather lived as a child and young man, and some more insights into his parents’ estrangement. I learned that there wasn’t a big blow up or event that led to their separation. Rather, due to economic necessity, my great grandfather, Elmer Adams, lived where he worked and my great grandmother, Hattie, stayed in a more populated area (Olympia) and rented rooms in their house to earn income. Eventually, they decided to make the arrangement permanent and my grandfather was informed by his sister, and then his mother, that the couple would never again share a home.
It led me to think about how our social norms have changed over the last 85 years. Things we wouldn’t bat an eyelash at now (having parents who were separated, for instance) were a potential reason not to marry someone, apparently. My grandfather wrote in his letter that he asked his sister, Dora, if he should “let the fact that I have no united home keep me from marrying. Dora said ‘absolutely not.'” His siblings gave him the courage to confess his family’s checkered history and ask for his sweetheart’s love and hand in marriage.
I did pick up a few facts that I hadn’t known:
- My grandfather and his family lived in Portland, Oregon (where he was born on November 12, 1904), until he was four, when the family moved to Quinault Lake, on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. On today’s roads, that’s a 185-mile trip. In the letter, my grandfather mentions that 50 miles of that journey was traveled on the first road ever constructed to the lake (what a remote place that must have been!) and that he made the trip with a broken leg, tied in a box.
- I didn’t learn why my grandfather’s family emigrated to Washington from Kentucky in the first decade of this century, but I did learn that they made a trip back to Kentucky when he was 10 for a visit that lasted a half year. That must have been a big adventure!
- I learned that my great grandfather, Elmer, was an industrious man with a propensity for bad luck. When the U.S. became involved in World War I, he started a spruce mill to create lumber for airplanes. It wasn’t an easy task–he had to build a road up a hillside to the mill site and it took a year before he turned out his first lumber. That happened about November 7, 1918, just days before the end of the war. My grandfather wrote in the letter, “The first day the mill made expenses, the Kaiser quit. I reckon it was because he heard I would be a year older the next day and would probably go warring after him.” With the war over, the demand for spruce evaporated. But the government made good on its promises and Elmer ended up being reimbursed for his loss. Next, Elmer started a logging business in the capital city, Olympia, but a gasoline shortage meant he couldn’t get his logs to the railroad. The letter details other ventures that resulted in a whole lot of hard work but not a whole lot of money.
I treasure this letter because it’s full of love, humor and honesty. I love that my grandmother read it and married him anyway (just a month later). They were married for 58 years, until Dave died in 1986. I worry that we’ve lost the art of letter writing to the expediency of email and, worse yet (from a permanence point of view) text messages. It makes me wonder if future generations will experience the thrill of this kind of discovery from their 21st-century ancestors!